Movies based on video games seem like such a demonstrably bad idea that you wonder why any self-respecting filmmaker would try to make one. Maybe it's because the checks clear or maybe actors and directors are seduced by the challenge of seeing how far they can get when it comes to building stories around the prominent features of a popular game.
The makers of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time -- director Mike Newell, a trio of screenwriters and fabled producer Jerry Bruckheimer -- get further than you'd expect with a sand-swept adventure that uses new-fangled CGI technology to revive old-fashioned moviegoing pleasures, not exactly a novel ambition, but one that's serviceable. I thought I detected evocations of Lawrence of Arabia in Harry Gregson-Williams' score, and at times, I almost felt as if I were watching a real movie. Swords, sand, sandals and a little exoticism go a long way.
The problem with Prince of Persia, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a commoner who becomes a prince, rests squarely on its script. Video games presumably come equipped with a rooting interest; the player hopes he or she beats the odds. Prince of Persia leaps from set piece to set piece without really giving us a good enough reason to invest in the outcome. The plot revolves around a dagger with magical powers. Used correctly, this dagger can turn back the clock, a feat shown by Newell in a series of stuttering images that don't exactly qualify as astonishing. It feels as if the movie has hiccupped.
Maybe none of that matters; Prince of Persia tries to trample criticism by bombarding us with the usual blend of dizzying, over-edited action, a ton of British accents (even Gyllenhaal tries one) and no truly engaging characters.
Let me revise what I just said about the lack of engaging characters. One character, a disreputable gambler who organizes ostrich races, provides a bit of fun. Alfred Molina's Sheik Amar brings more life to the screen than all the other actors combined. Molina makes a strong impression, even though the writers have saddled his character with a contemporary, Tea Party take on government and taxation.
That's not the only attempt to add contemporary gloss. It seems that the Persians were tricked into invading the city of Alamut with a familiar lie. The place supposedly was harboring weapons that could be used against Persia. Guess what? The invasion turned up no WMDs or whatever such weapons should be called in this quasi-mythical, artificial environment.
You can tell a movie is in a bit of trouble script-wise when actors are forced to provide large junks of expository dialogue, which happens here on occasion. If you really want to know more about that dagger, you'll have to see the movie. I've already pushed the eject button on the major elements of the plot. Know, though, that although there's a genre-appropriate lack of subtlety here, you may not find an equivalent amount of fun.
Did I mention that Ben Kingsley is in the movie? If not, it may be because he doesn't make that much of a mark as the brother of the king who adopts Gyllenhaal's character early in the movie.
I'd say the verdict is still out on Gyllenhaal as an action hero. He looks swarthy, and he leaps about with conviction, but he can't quite muster the leading man charm that distinguished Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Gyllenhaal's paired with Gemma Arterton, last seen in Clash of The Titans. She's attractive, and the two of them whip up enough on-screen chemistry to keep things percolating while themes of brotherly love, loyalty, royal betrayal, true love and the fate of all mankind bump up against one another.
Newell, who directed Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, may seem an unlikely choice for a large-scale fantasy, but he also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.. He does well enough with this trumped-up material.
No need saying more. Prince of Persia provides medium-grade entertainment with lots of fiery special effects and no apparent purpose other than to sell tickets to those who need a fix before the next action-oriented wannabe blockbuster comes along.